Jack Daniels Chicken: An Accidental Discovery and, Also, a Near-Death Experience

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Do not let this guy near an open flame.
To the neophyte cook, is there any object more suspect, more chock-full of dangers unknown, than a thick, raw chicken breast?

An experienced chef doesn't worry about chicken. But to me, on a particular evening last summer, as a neophyte cook fresh off my first rice cooker and utterly lacking in stovetop experience, two thick, raw chicken breasts represented nothing so much as a gamble on mine and my boyfriend's lives. A person less inclined to panic would consult Google. I just slathered the things with butter, cranked up the gas, and tossed 'em on the stove.

Sputter! Hiss! The air was full of molten butter spitlets, and in seconds the outer skins of the damned breasts were charred. I thought: My god, are they cooked already? I waded into the butter-crazy danger zone around the stove, sliced open one of the breasts -- using a knife which immediately entered quarantine in the sink, because you can never be too careful; you don't want to re-use one of these soiled things, because even a successfully burnt bird could thereby be retainted with dread salmonella -- and, no, the insides were completely raw. And there was a lot of inside to these breasts. They were more than three inches thick. It was clear that long before the inner breasts were safe to eat, the outsides would be inedible and carbonized.

I did what any reasonable young adult would do in that situation. I called mommy.

"Mum!" I said. "I'm in trouble!" I explained my predicament.

"Keep the things wet!" she said. "Just -- get some liquid on them! And turn down the heat!"

I looked around. There was skim milk. That wouldn't work. There was a tiny bit of olive oil. I used it, then it was gone, evaporated in seconds.

"The pan's too hot," I said. "It can't hold the liquid."

"You'll need to douse it," she said. "Don't you have anything?"

Now, at that time one of my roommates had befriended a coked-out young trustafarian with a tendency to throw over-elaborate parties. This trustafarian had recently hosted some kind of soiree in Miami, for which she, in her chemical optimism, had wildly overestimated the necessary amount of booze. In the bleary morning-after, she'd bequeathed to my roommate not a bottle, but a case of Jack Daniels, which had spent several weeks languishing in the closet as we figured out what to do with it.

I sprinted to this closet. I opened a bottle of Jack. The chicken spat away in the kitchen. I dashed into the danger zone and spilled a bit of booze on the gas burner. The kitchen erupted in flame. I knew I was going to die.

But I didn't. The flames vanished in a great and terrifying woosh, and then there was only the kitchen, the chicken, and a steady drizzle of Jack Daniels, the first several fluid ounces of which evaporated on contact with the pan, but which ultimately managed to form a pool. The pan cooled down.

"Thank god," said mum. "I thought you were a goner."

"It was close," I said.

"Now listen," she said, and proceeded to explain how I might salvage the meal: Keep the breasts wet, keep 'em cooking on a low flame, and keep checking 'em for done-ness. Which I did.

So that I didn't rely completely on booze, I added, in installments, a half a stick of butter to the pan, along with a few generous dollops of Sriracha sauce. When the chicken was done, I served it with some mashed potatoes dressed with arugula, which had previously been sauteed in garlic. It was all awesome, and the chicken especially -- this is, to my knowledge, the one and only earthly context in which Jack Daniels tastes good, lending buoyant, boozy sweet notes to a massive, moist chicken breast.

"Jack Chicken," as we call it, has become a household staple. As it happens, my first chicken breast experience inculcated in me certain indispensable principals of chicken cookery which, when adhered to, all but guarantee a brilliant meal.

To wit:

Basic Principles Of Jack Daniels Thick Chicken Breast Cookery

- The breasts should be thick. Real thick. Which means cooking them can take a while. Plan for 30 minutes of stove time, though it could take less. Don't be afraid to check for doneness.

- To achieve the desired char, coat chicken breasts with butter while a reasonably thin frying pan heats up on the stove.

- Get said pan extremely hot. You'll know it's ready when water droplets dissipate instantaneously on contact, and you've then waited another five minutes for the pan to get even hotter.

- Once you plop the breasts on the pan, you should wait until the outsides look ready to eat before you even think about adding liquid.

- Just before you do add liquid, turn the heat way the hell down. The longer the rest of the cooking takes, the juicier the breasts will be.

- When you do add liquid, add a lot. The birds should be almost swimming.

- Your Jack may be profitably cut with butter and/or olive oil. Butter and/or olive oil improve everything. Also: Sriracha and/or Tabasco sauce. 

- For god's sake, don't let your booze touch an open flame.

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Pete Pepper
Pete Pepper

Kinda shocked that no one else knows about how to cook with alcohol.  Figured it out when I was a kid.  Used to soak the chicken in a mix of vodka and grenadine and then cook it over a grill.  Comes out pink but if done right, tastes good.

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